Many developing countries, unlike India, do not have proper air monitoring systems; if they did, India’s ranking would be better

Delhi’s iconic Red Fort enveloped in smog. Photo: iStock

The findings of a recent report by Swiss technology company IQAir, which said 39 of the world’s top 50 most polluted cities were in India, must be ‘taken with a pinch of salt’, an expert has told Down To Earth.

IQAir’s annual city-wise air quality report found that there were six Indian cities in the top 10 with the most polluted air globally, 14 in the top 20, 39 in the top 50 and 65 in the top 100 — up from 61 in the previous year.

India had the eighth-most polluted air on average, it added.

But Gufran Beig, founder project director, SAFAR, Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, said the numbers did not show the whole picture. 

“These figures need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Many countries (like those in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Islands) which are likely to have a high level of pollution, do not have any air pollution monitors. Cities in these regions are not included in this ranking. If they were, India’s ranking would be better. Although there is no denying the fact that major parts of urban India are reeling from poor air quality,” he told DTE.

Predictably, the worst-affected cities from India on the list are all from the northern part of the country, especially the densely-populated Indo-Gangetic Plain, stretching from Punjab in the west to West Bengal in the east.

“Adverse geo-climatic conditions influence the pollution concentration that is already high in the Indo-Gangetic Plain. There are also tiny towns in the list that are perhaps more affected by the regional pollution than local sources — unless there are grossly polluting sources concentrated within the small periphery of those towns,” Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Research and Advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi, told DTE.

Overall, this validates the need for airshed-level action to mitigate pollution at a regional scale — in this case across the northern region, she added. 

Airshed mapping has to be the first step toward searching a solution and formulating it, agreed Beig.

The reasons behind the high-levels of air pollution in northern India are multi-sectoral. Sources of air pollution include industry, power plants, vehicles, open burning of waste, use of solid fuels by poor households and dust sources.

“There is also a lot of unorganised industry. Phasing out old power plants and greening dusty, barren swathes of land should be priorities to reduce emissions in northern India,” said Beig.

Southern India, on the other hand, is blessed with favourable climatological factors owing to its location by the sea.

“Overall, the finding on Delhi is consistent with the downward trend that has already been noticed in other assessments for Delhi. Levels are still very high and require significantly stronger multi-sector action for effective reduction to meet the clean air benchmark,” she said.

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